A SUCCESSFUL FAILURE.*
WHOEVER reads Fifty Years of Failure will make acquaint- ance with a very pleasant, cheerful book ; and are not those -the two qualities best worth having in an acquaintance P Very many bard-working men find nowadays that a certain amount .of light reading has become to them an almost essential * Fifty Years of Failure: Confessions of an Optimist. London : Smith, Elder, And Co. [105. 6d. net.]
distraction, like a certain amount of superficial social inter- course. They do not care for rubbish any more than they care for dull company. They want something which will entertain them without making them think too hard, and which will neither make much call on their sympathies nor supply much work for their critical faculties. Books which impart no great modicum of literary pleasure, whether that pleasure be grave or humorous, may yet be exceedingly good in their way,—that is, they may be genuinely recreative. The demand for such books is new, and the demand has
created a supply. Perhaps the best form for this type of
book to take is that of the romance ; but all readers do not care for novels of incident, and all readers do care for variety. The author of the book before us has written an autobiography without any incidents at all, yet whose interest never flags, and whose effect upon the reader is simply that of happy distraction.
This, if we judge him rightly, was his sole aim ; and if so, the story of his failure is a complete success. The book deserves a welcome, but it is not very easy to illustrate by quotation what is its charm. It is difficult to say in what the particular form of happiness which belongs to a very light heart consists. It is still more difficult to say how that happiness can be diffused in print. We should imagine this particular " Optimist" would be a bad hand at analysing either his skill or his feelings ; but he has known by instinct how to create a sunshiny atmosphere, and bow to make his reader breathe it. In early youth, he tells us, his lines fell in
pleasant places. He had all the pleasures which fall to the share of the upper-class boy. His father was a Canon of Salisbury, his grandfather the fourth Lord Aberdeen, "That travelled Thane, Athenian Aberdeen," as Byron calls him. It is impossible not to feel young when the "Optimist" takes us to Eton, and tells us of all the trivial things which made a schoolboy's life cheerful forty years ago. We must laugh as though we were still in our teens when he shows us a short-sighted Eton Master in a high wind chasing a black ben in one direction, while his hat is blown further and further off in another, or when we are introduced to another schoolmaster whose right eye was smaller than his left, and who was always called "Eighteenpence." Holidays spent at Salisbury seem to have been even pleasanter than schooldays at Eton, and we are told some good stories of the Wiltshire peasantry and Wiltshire dialect. We quote one :—
" The irrigation of the water-meadows is an important job for the farmers, and requires experienced handling. There is generally a man on each farm whose special business it is to look after this, and he is known as the drownder.' It is related that one of His Majesty's Judges, being a stalwart man, went down one morning to bathe There came to him a farm-hand, who said: Yon musn't ba-a-th theer V Why not?' said the Judge. 'Because theer 'ave bean peeple drownded theer." Oh, really !' said the Judge, somewhat contemptuously, believing in his own powers of swimming. 'And who are you ? " The drownder, Zur !' was the answer he got."
Having finished his education, the "Optimist" began his career by failing for the Foreign Office. Some one suggested to his parents to get him a nomination for the British Museum, for which the examination was not competitive, and
forthwith he became "an officer of the British Museum." In those days no scientific qualification was required, no matter what department the aspirant desired to enter. Our hero was of course entirely unfitted for his post, but equally of course he was very happy in it, and made many friends. We are given to understand he did his work very well as soon as he had learned to do it. "I am very grateful for my years in the Museum," he says, and adds that it is impossible to pass some years in such a place "without assimilating some of the traditions and some of the know- ledge centred in it. But it is manifestly unfair that the education of the officers should take place after they have been appointed." While in the British Museum he became, he says, "an inhabitant of the outer region of the merry land of Bohemia, in which delectable country I have, with
the exception of a few years, lived ever since. Sometimes only in the remoter parts of it, at others very near its heart."
He compares Bohemia and "Mrs. Grundy's country," to the detriment of the latter. In Bohemia, we are informed, they speak the truth and never go back on a friend. The "Optimist" would see any land he lived in through rose- coloured spectacles. Much that we hear from him about
Bohemia is amusing; but what a great deal they seem to eat and drink in this frank and friendly Utopia.
Leaving the British Museum in the hope of making a better income, our "Optimist" sought his fortune in a publishing business, which came to an end shortly after his entrance. He then accepted work in "a great Church Publishing Society," and quitted "Bohemia "—so he tells us —for a short time, with the result that be seems to have been a shade less happy for a few years. Holidays in Ireland, of which we get some lively sketches, served to reconcile him to passing his working days with Mrs. Grundy. Here we begin to get glimpses of a pleasant family life, very little over- shadowed apparently by the money anxiety hinted at through- out the book. Soon we find the "Optimist" back in Bohemia. He exchanged his Church work for two secretaryships, the first to a charitable society for befriending poor painters, the second to one "which had for its principal object the repro- duction in colour of early Italian frescoes." Work for the latter society takes him out of England, and enables him to write some eminently readable chapters about Italy, Germany, and France. We find a graphic description of Naples as it appeared to a visitor in the cholera year, and a good-tempered account of the extreme discomforts of quarantine, together with much kindly criticism of Frenchmen and Germans, for both of whom the writer, who is something of a cosmopolitan, has a cordial liking. "So far as I am concerned," he writes, "I have always met with great kindness, though not always great courtesy, from the Germans with whom I have come in contact, and when I get out of the train at the Friedrich-strasse Station I always feel that I have arrived at a place where I am at home." The German, he goes on, "is wholly wanting in the smaller courtesies which are so characteristic of the French nation" ; but "for real kindness of heart and for readiness to make small sacrifices to help others, the German is far superior to the Frenchman. If you ask a Frenchman a question, he will answer you very politely and take off his hat; but it is not likely that he will go out of his way to show you where you want to go, or to supplement his information. In a similar case, the German will answer you somewhat curtly, but it is more than likely that he will walk half-a-mile to show you where you want to go and to see that you get there." The thing he likes least in Germany is the complete division which exists between members of the educated classes. "The upper classes look down with undisguised contempt on any one connected with trade, and the great middle class do not attempt to associate with them. When I used to be in Berlin on business I was of course associated with business people ; and though I had a good many friends among the 'hupper sukkles ' I never ventured to have anything to do with them." As to the German military system, he believes it pleases the German people on the whole, though evidently a good bit of grumbling goes on :—
"Every man has done his time in the Army, and has very likely been subject to the caprice and the insolence of those in command over him. The German Einjiihriger as a rule hates his superior officer, more especially the non-commissioned officers, and resents the very uncomfortable twelve months which he has to undergo ; but, at the same time, he is honestly proud of the German Army, of which ho, like every one else, Las formed a unit."
Paris, he writes, is of course very attractive, but its amuse- ments—such, that is, as an ordinary visitor can share in—are "laid on" entirely for that visitor. The German, on the other hand, amuses himself "in an almost child-like way," and is "extremely glad if any one else likes to come in and share his frivolity." Consequently the man who knows Germany knows something of the Germans, but a man may know France well and not know the French.
All is grist which comes to the "Optimist's" mill, whether it be work or travel, Volunteering, electioneering, or service upon Municipal Committees. The accounts we get of his political activities seem as if they must have been written by a school- boy, so completely does he look at the whole thing in the light of a lark. This view is very irritating when one thinks of it, but while one is reading it is impossible not to be amused by the shifts he resorts to to get the better of "my friends the enemies," against whom, even when he is con- triving to get their houses stuck all over with Conservative bills, he has not the very slightest ill-feeling. Desiring, he says, "to show the power in the constituency of the Con- servative party," and with no particular interest in the administration of the Poor Law, he stood for his local Vestry, was successful, found the business interesting, was made Chairman, and did some excellent work. His kind-hearted and common-sense hints on the subject of workhouse management form the most serious chapter in the book. Though our "Optimist" has had no financial success, and has been, from the point of view of professional ambition and of pounds, shillings, and pence, a failure, we do not think that his happiness is entirely to be accounted for by his dis- position. All through the book we get glimpses of luck, especially domestic luck. Though he has been poor, he says* his children have done well, and are his best friends. We cannot resist quoting one story, which bears upon our suggestion :—
" We all know _Barry Pain's story of the child who was travel- ling in a railway carriage with a bun in its hand, accompanied by its father. The child was intelligent and wished to know things ; he asked his father what made the train move. He was told the engine. What made the engine move ? Steam. What was steam? It was water when it was very hot; and so on ad infinitum. At last the father in despair said to the child : 01, do eat your damn bun !' I am afraid that this phrase has become a household word among us, and that the remark of the despairing father is not infrequently used by members of my family, when they wish to discontinue a discussion. But I was not prepared to have these words said to me by my youngest daughter when I was trying to instruct her as to the duty of sitting still and keeping quiet during a children's service."
A family who mutually apply to one another this method of closure are amiable, to say the least of it, not amiable enough to make a man an "optimist," for optimists are born and not made, but sufficiently so to play a large part in, keeping him one.